His prior convictions and other “bad acts” taken into consideration, an Ellis County jury took less than a half-hour to sentence a Dallas man to life in prison Tuesday evening.
Earlier in the afternoon, the nine-female, three-male jury took about an hour to find 47-year-old Aaron Eugene Henderson guilty of intoxication manslaughter in the death of Mimi Beth Wittlinger, 49, of Waxahachie. The motor vehicle collision that claimed her life occurred Feb. 25, 2007, on State Highway 342 near its intersection with U.S. Highway 77.
In his closing argument in the trial’s punishment phase, chief felony prosecutor Don Maxfield asked jurors to sentence Henderson to life in prison.
“The defense says he learned a lesson by killing Mimi Wittlinger. It’s too bad it took her death for him to learn a lesson,” Maxfield said. “It’s too bad he didn’t learn a lesson in 1982 when he committed three felonies. … It’s too bad he didn’t learn a lesson in 1985 when he committed another felony and went to prison for 13 years.
“It’s too bad he didn’t learn a lesson when he was put under a protective order … and he was just put on probation for aggravated assault,” Maxfield said. “Instead, what he had to do, to learn a lesson from, was getting blasted, getting in a car, going in a direction he didn’t know where he was and killing a poor innocent woman who was babysitting for a friend.
“Now, he’s learned a lesson. Now he has tears,” Maxfield said. “The safest place for him is in prison for the rest of his life because he’s a menace to society. He’s a career criminal and he’s a habitual criminal. He has killed as a career, habitual criminal and there is no reason to believe, if he ever gets out of prison, that he will change his conduct in any way.”
Evidence in the case pointed to Henderson as the intoxicated driver of the vehicle that killed Wittlinger, Maxfield said.
“We hear all the time, ‘Why doesn’t someone do something? Why don’t they do something?’ Today, ladies and gentlemen, you are ‘they’ and you can do something,” he said. “The proper thing to do is to put this man away where he can do no more harm. And it may be hard, but you know it’s the right thing to do.”
Against the advice of his defense attorney Cindy Ermatinger, Henderson took the stand on his own behalf during both the guilt/innocence and punishment phases of the trial.
Henderson denied driving the SUV that struck Wittlinger’s Infiniti, telling jurors he was asleep in the back seat while another friend drove and another friend was in the front passenger seat. Those two men must have fled the scene after the accident, leaving him behind, he said.
Henderson said the beer and flask found in the SUV weren’t his – and that he only drank about four beers earlier in the day and none in the several hours before the accident. He said he was asleep in the back seat because he was on medicine for a sinus infection.
“I know I wasn’t driving,” he said, saying he recalled nothing of the accident or being transported to the hospital.
Henderson told jurors police illegally took a blood sample from him – court testimony indicated he had a blood alcohol level of .23, almost three times the state of Texas’ legal limit of .08 -– and claimed they intentionally turned off a patrol car video early on at the scene to prevent accurate documentation.
As part of his defense, Henderson also said he never saw police at the hospital and questioned whether it was even his own blood that was pulled for a sample. He said he was never properly put under arrest and further questioned the Red Oak Police Department’s investigation into the collision.
Asked by Maxfield about his prior convictions, Henderson said those were the result of his being an accomplice only – not the main actor.
“I was the one who got caught,” he said.
Henderson told Maxfield he had never been to Ellis County before the night of the collision, saying he had come down with friends to see yet another friend in the Red Oak area.
He said the few beers he had earlier in the day, while they might have indicated he was intoxicated on a test, hadn’t hampered his physical abilities.
He denied driving the SUV, but under questioning from Maxfield said he would have been able to if he had.
“Even though your blood alcohol concentration was .23, you were still physically fine to drive?”
Henderson said his last recollection was he and his two friends leaving the Red Oak friend’s residence to return home to Oak Cliff.
“So your testimony to these jurors is that, when the wreck occurred, you were thrown from the back seat into the driver’s seat, where you were pinned, and (the two friends) ran away?” Maxfield said, reminding Henderson that several people testified he was found in the driver’s seat.
“I wasn’t in the driver’s seat,” Henderson said. “I know that because I wasn’t arrested for driving the car.”
“Isn’t it true, Mr. Henderson, that you were at the (friend’s) house with your buddies drinking beer, you got lost on the way home and got on the wrong road? You didn’t know that road and you were so intoxicated that you didn’t realize there was a curve and you crossed the centerline and hit Mrs. Wittlinger’s car?” Maxfield asked.
“No, sir,” Henderson said, denying again he was driving the vehicle.
During the punishment phase of the trial, Henderson downplayed a 2006 case of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for which he was serving a four-year sentence, deferred adjudication, out of Dallas County at the time of the fatal collision.
Court documents indicate he assaulted the mother of two of his children, with testimony indicating she had previously filed a protective order against Henderson. Henderson said he “only threw a rock” at her and that the protective order was years ago. He said they had gotten back together again after about one week and that the numerous incidents of family violence cited in the order were false.
Henderson, who also has two children by a second female, had seen his common-law marriage with a third woman end a few weeks prior to the collision. He had moved out but had taken his common-law wife’s SUV, which was the vehicle that collided with Wittlinger’s.
Henderson, who wiped tears from his eyes during his testimony, talked about his children and asked jurors to sentence him toward the lesser side. He said he was the main provider for his children and was involved in their lives.
He said he sympathized with Wittlinger, but again denied any role in her death.
“I did not kill that lady, there’s no way,” he said. “I know Mimi lost her life. … I just don’t believe it’s probable that I was driving that car.”
Henderson, who has been at Wayne McCollum Detention Center since he was taken into custody in May 2007, will be credited with 327 days already served toward his sentence.
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